2:00 AM CDT on Sunday, July 18, 2010
Politics often resembles an inheritance: For better or for worse, political leaders are shaped by what precedes them. The most recent example of this occurred in 2008, when President Barack Obama’s election was certainly helped by the stock market crash, two unpopular wars and a damaged Republican brand.
But perhaps the greatest example of this inheritance phenomenon in politics transpired in 1980. How did a 69-year-old conservative former actor get elected president in a landslide? Laura Kalman tries to answer that question in her new book, Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980.Kalman argues that to understand Ronald Reagan’s triumph in 1980, it’s essential to first understand the failures of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. She builds the case that the 1970s were a time of great tumult in American society and politics, if only because it saw so many of the dreams born in the 1960s bloom and then wilt into policy nightmares. She is interested in how so much of the 1960s “sputtered out” in the 1970s.And what a sputtering it was. The Vietnam War ended with the North Vietnamese invasion and annexation of South Vietnam and later the slaughter in Cambodia . The bill for the Great Society’s spending spree came due in the form of high inflation. And OPEC’s decision to use oil as a political weapon led to the first energy crisis.This was the social and economic backdrop of the drama of the 1970s. But the spotlight in Kalman’s book finds its way to a cast of compelling political characters in a story of inheritance politics.
First, Richard Nixon squandered his landslide victory and was forced to resign after Watergate. This led to the genial and decent Ford, who helped heal the wounds of the nation but soon found himself overwhelmed by events. When Ford famously tried to curb inflation with his “Whip Inflation Now” campaign, he seemed to occupy a job too big for him. In one speech, he urged Americans to conserve food so as to lower price demand and exhorted people to “clean up your plate before you get up from the table.” The Gettysburg Address it was not.Ford might still have survived had it not been for the challenge he received from his right in the 1976 primaries. Ironically, the banner flown by the Reagan campaign that year was more populist than conservative. In defending American possession of the Panama Canal, Reagan went right to people’s emotional heartstrings. “We built it, we paid for it and we’re going to keep it!” he repeatedly pronounced to cheering Republican primary voters. Americans saw chaos and crisis all around them in the 1970s; Reagan offered clarity and confidence.
While Ford narrowly survived the Reagan challenge, he lost to Carter in the general election. Again, a genial and decent man entered office largely because his predecessor had set the stage for him. And again, the new president was no match for the gathering momentum of social and economic challenges that had been building for years. Carter was so beset by challenges â€“ gas lines, inflation, hostages in Iran â€“ that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. joked they were his “salvation,” in that people wanted him to overcome them. But he couldn’t. And he didn’t.
By 1980, the American people were tired of the crises of the 1970s and troubled that no one had answers. And so they took a chance on a new leader. As Kalman concludes, “Reasonable people disagree about the directions in which he took the country. But few will dispute that Reagan led it. By assuming command, he ended the seventies.”
Kasey S. Pipes, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is the author of Ike’s Final Battle and the Norris Research Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College.
Right Star Rising
A New Politics, 1974-1980